At last week’s Macworld Expo in New York City, Steve Jobs introduced the iBook, Apple’s forthcoming consumer laptop, and AirPort, Apple’s inexpensive wireless networking technology. Adam looks through the hyperbole at how these products stack up, and how Apple’s focus on consumers may change the Macintosh world forever. Also this week, we note Y2K updates for FileMaker Pro 4.x, speech recognition announcements, and the new eFax Microviewer.
Continuous Speech Recognition Pipes Up — Following closely on Dragon Systems’ announcement last May of plans to develop a version of NaturallySpeaking for the Macintosh, both IBM and MacSpeech are raising the stakes for continuous speech recognition technologies on the Mac. During Steve Jobs’s Macworld keynote, IBM’s W.S. "Ozzie" Osborne demonstrated a version of IBM’s ViaVoice system for the Mac OS, which both handles continuous speech input from a user and also reads text back using the Mac OS’s existing text-to-speech technology. According to IBM, versions of ViaVoice for U.S. and U.K. English should be available by the end of 1999, with support for other languages to follow; no information on pricing or system requirements was released. Not to be outdone, Andrew Taylor’s upstart MacSpeech, sporting the development team from Articulate Systems’ PowerSecretary, announced an agreement to license continuous speech recognition technology from Philips Speech Processing to create continuous speech recognition products exclusively for the Mac. Although MacSpeech also hasn’t released details on product pricing or system requirements, they also claim English-language products should be available by the end of 1999. [GD]
Y2K Updates for FileMaker Pro 4.0 and 4.1 — After withdrawing its 4.1v2 updaters a few weeks ago, FileMaker Inc. has released free updaters for both FileMaker Pro 4.0 and 4.1 to address Y2K-related inconsistencies in the way the database applications handle dates. The updates also quash a few bugs and add new strict data validation capabilities for numbers, times, and dates. The updaters bring the Worldwide English edition of FileMaker Pro 4.0v2 to version 4.0v3, and the Worldwide English edition of FileMaker Pro 4.1v1 to version 4.1v3; FileMaker says updates for localized versions of FileMaker Pro should be available shortly. If you installed the short-lived FileMaker Pro 4.1v2 update, you must revert to FileMaker Pro 4.1v1 before updating to 4.1v3. We’re happy to see FileMaker extending these date-related fixes to owners of FileMaker Pro 4.0, many of whom did not pay to upgrade to version 4.1 for its ODBC-related features. You can download the appropriate 1.2 MB updater from FileMaker’s support Web pages. [GD]
eFax Releases Mac Microviewer — Mac users of the eFax online fax delivery service can now download the company’s eFax Microviewer for Macintosh. (For more on Internet fax services, see "Facts about Internet Faxing" in TidBITS-484.) The eFax Microviewer allows you to receive, view, and use password protection on incoming faxes. The software is a 370K download and requires Mac OS 7.0.1 or later. [JLC]
The most common question I was asked at last week’s Macworld Expo in New York (apart from the much-appreciated "How’s Tonya?" – she stayed home with Tristan) was the standard, "So what’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen?" This year nothing could compare to the iBook, which made its debut during Steve Jobs’s keynote.
What Is the iBook? When Steve Jobs regained the reins at Apple, he outlined a four-square product matrix with desktop and portable products for both consumers and professionals. The blue and white Power Macintosh G3 and the PowerBook G3 occupied both squares of the professional column, and the iMac was in the consumer desktop square. Left tantalizingly blank until last week was the consumer portable square. If you missed the massive media coverage, the iBook fills that final space. Or at least it will when it ships in September.
As with the iMac, Apple didn’t skimp much on features with the $1,599 iBook, which boasts a 300 MHz PowerPC G3, 12.1-inch TFT active matrix color display capable of up to 800 by 600 resolution in millions of colors, 32 MB of RAM (expandable to 160 MB), a 3.2 GB hard disk, a 24x CD-ROM drive, internal 56K modem, a 10/100Base-T Ethernet jack, one USB port, a "full-size" keyboard, and a supposed six hour battery life. Those are impressive specs, and Jobs claimed the iBook would be the second-fastest laptop currently available after the PowerBook G3.
Attention to design detail is also evident in the iBook, which will debut with a choice of either blueberry or tangerine coloring. More interesting is the handle mounted where the two halves of the clamshell-style case connect. Using the handle makes the iBook’s 6.6 pounds feel lighter than the bronze keyboard PowerBook G3’s 5.9 pounds. Apple eliminated easily broken doors from the recessed modem, Ethernet, and USB ports. Also new is the complete lack of a latch: Apple took a hint from cellular phone designs in creating a hinge that holds the screen shut. (The previous three PowerBook designs – the PowerBook G3, the PowerBook G3 Series, and the bronze keyboard PowerBook G3 – all feature different latches.) Finally, Apple outfitted the iBook in polycarbonate plastic edged with hard rubber for durability.
Wireless Networking — The most amazing aspect of the iBook, though, is its support for Apple’s new AirPort wireless networking, based on technology from Lucent and the 802.11 DSSS (Direct-Sequence Spread Spectrum, as opposed to the incompatible FHSS, or Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum) wireless networking standard. With the addition of a $99 card under the iBook’s keyboard and a $299 AirPort Base Station, iBooks can share files, play network games, and generally do anything possible on a normal network, all without a single wire. This invisible networking is enabled by the AirPort card and a pair of internal antennas on either side of the iBook’s screen.
The AirPort Base Station is shaped like a flying saucer or a pudgy Hershey’s Kiss with three connectors in back. A 10/100Base-T Ethernet jack lets you connect an AirPort Base Station to a wired network for communicating with desktop Macs, printers, and dedicated Internet connections. A standard telephone jack belongs to a 56 Kbps modem, so the Base Station can connect directly to an Internet service provider. The third jack is a relatively dull AC power connector, but I heard that it uses 12 volts, making it easy to run via an adapter in a car or boat.
AirPort is theoretically capable of 11 Mbps, although it remains to be seen what sort of performance AirPort networks will enjoy in real world situations. Other limitations include a 150 foot range (diminished by thick walls or floors) and a 10 user per AirPort Base Station recommendation. The 10 user limit is not etched in stone; I heard of successful tests involving over 30 iBook users working with a single AirPort Base Station, although performance may suffer under heavy network use. AirPort will require Mac OS 8.6 or later.
Details on AirPort are still sketchy, but from conversations with knowledgeable people, it appears the AirPort includes NAT (Network Address Translation) and DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol). Combine those with the 56 Kbps modem and any iBook connected to an AirPort Base Station that has dialed up an ISP can share that single Internet connection. That’s amazingly useful, and better yet, if you have a wired Ethernet network connected to the AirPort Base Station’s Ethernet jack, that network can also share the modem-based Internet connection. According to Apple, Airport Base Station Access Point software can enable an iBook to function as a base station; the network could then also connect to the Internet using the iBook’s internal modem.
Software will let you protect your AirPort network, since otherwise anyone could sit on your porch with an iBook and use your network without permission. The connections reportedly use 40-bit encryption to prevent other people from eavesdropping on your network traffic as well. In addition, users must enter a password to log onto an AirPort network.
AirPort’s pricing sets a new standard in the wireless networking market. Before this, you could expect to spend at least $300 on a PC Card and between $700 and $1,100 for a base station for a total of $1,000 to $1,400. Compare that to the $400 you’ll pay for a complete AirPort solution, and you can see how Apple intends to bring wireless networking to the masses. My guess is that within a year, we’ll see AirPort antennas available across Apple’s entire line, with various styles of AirPort cards available from both Apple and other manufacturers.
I can’t decide which superlatives to use with regard to AirPort, assuming the reality lives up to the promise. Just imagine the possible uses. Suddenly your entire house becomes network-capable without stringing a single wire. Classroom networking becomes much more of a reality than in the past. With AirPort Base Stations placed in strategic locations, college dorms and libraries could provide ad hoc Internet access to iBook-toting students. (Yes, this raises unknown issues about scalability, but we’re imagining here, remember?)
If you want to add wireless networking capabilities to older PowerBooks, you’ll need a WaveLAN PC Card from Lucent or the just-announced SkyLINE PC Card from Farallon after their testing confirms it is compatible with AirPort. (Both run at 2 Mbps.) The AirPort press release from Lucent also claims that Apple will offer a wireless card for the PowerBook G3.
Quibbles and Bits — Although I’m impressed with the iBook and AirPort networking, I have a few quibbles.
A mere 32 MB of RAM is rarely enough, even for a consumer. Every iBook should have at least 64 MB of RAM, and I expect dealers will install additional memory at the point of sale as they do for iMacs. Dealers may like this setup, since RAM can be a high-margin addition. I don’t know what form factor the memory modules will be, but I hope the iBook uses the same RAM as the current PowerBook G3.
The 12.1-inch screen, with a maximum resolution of 800 by 600 pixels, seems small and was undoubtedly one of the places Apple skimped to keep the price down. I wouldn’t be surprised if future iBooks increased the screen size to 13 inches or more with a higher maximum resolution. The plastics would seem to be big enough to accommodate a larger screen.
Limiting the iBook to two colors – blueberry and tangerine – seems an odd decision, especially since tangerine is the least popular iMac color. I’ve heard various speculation, including the simple requirement for an alternative to blueberry, the need to use up an enormous vat of orange plastic, and the claim that tangerine is Steve Jobs’s favorite color. The most credible explanation was that the other three iMac colors – grape, strawberry, and lime – simply didn’t look good in the iBook’s rubber attire.
The iBook keyboard has the fn (Function) key in the lower left corner of the keyboard, like the PowerBook G3s. I hate that location because it creates confusion when switching back and forth from a desktop keyboard, where the Control key is in that position. With Control being used heavily for contextual menus and applications using Option and Command with ever-increasing frequency, I wish Apple wouldn’t change the order of modifier keys relative to the left edge of the keyboard.
It isn’t clear if the AirPort Base Station’s modem can connect to America Online or other non-Internet services. AOL is the most important, because the iBook is aimed at consumers, who often use AOL.
I could see an argument for adding FireWire so digital camcorders could connect to the iBook, but I suspect Apple’s stance is that since the iBook’s 800 by 600 screen isn’t ideal for digital video, it’s better to point roving digital video aficionados to the PowerBook G3.
The iBook is both heavier and larger than I’d like. Consumers want small and light portable computers as much as professionals do, so it would have been nice to see Apple drop the weight by a pound or two and shrink the footprint. The weight is probably due to the durable plastics, and also because Apple was trying to keep the price down: lighter components cost more.
Target Markets — The iBook has been a topic of discussion on TidBITS Talk, with some people expressing disappointment and others raving about how perfect it is for their modest needs.
Remember that the iBook is not designed for professional use, and as much as a typical TidBITS reader might want additional features and capabilities, many of us aren’t the target audience. Apple is targeting the consumer market with the iBook, and the designers obviously thought long and hard about which features could be cut to save money while at the same time differentiating the iBook from the PowerBook G3. Unless some as-yet-unforeseen problem surfaces, I think we’ll have another iMac-style hit on our hands.
This year’s Macworld Expo in New York City opened with a stunt-filled keynote in which actor Noah Wyle briefly impersonated Steve Jobs and Apple vice president Phil Schiller jumped from a 30-foot ledge holding an iBook to demonstrate its wireless networking. The rest of the show was decidedly upbeat and somewhat larger than last year’s Macworld Expo in New York, though still significantly smaller than January’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
That said, the big news was Apple’s introduction of the iBook, the long-awaited and overly rumored consumer portable. But the iBook unveiling was more than just the most notable announcement: it set the tone for the entire show, highlighting a somewhat awkward transitional moment in the Macintosh industry.
For the most part, Apple isn’t making overt moves toward the business world right now. Why should they? The business world has generally scorned the Macintosh, denigrated Apple, and bought into the Microsoft-and-Intel message. Apple would love to break into the business market, but there’s little chance of that happening soon with the death spiral days of 1996 and 1997 still a recent memory.
The light that Apple has seen is a spotlight on Jack and Jill Consumer, credit cards in their hands. Compared to business users, consumers place a higher value on industrial design, worry less about specifications, and aren’t as susceptible to the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) tactics that work so well on suits trying to plan for a future that involves not being fired.
Tension — Herein lies the problem. If Apple points the way to the consumer market, the Macintosh industry will follow. To paraphrase Jesse James, it’s because that’s where the money is. But think briefly about the implication of the industry orienting more on the consumer. Those of us who have been in the Macintosh world for quite some time aren’t novices, aren’t happy about having to switch existing peripherals to new interfaces like USB or FireWire, and have numerous older Macs that still serve us faithfully.
In short, we’re a different audience, one with overlap certainly, but different nonetheless. Reactions to the iBook are most telling, because it’s not really aimed at Macworld Expo attendees. People complain about the iBook’s lack of FireWire, a video out port, a microphone, PC Card slots, and media bays, plus its somewhat hefty size and weight. These complaints would be totally justified if we were talking about a PowerBook – but we’re not. We’re talking about an iMac to go, as Apple puts it. Repeat after me: the iBook is for consumers. Consumers don’t hook up external monitors, plug in PC Cards, or need more than 3.2 GB of hard disk space. Consumers want low prices, and lighter parts would have driven the cost up.
Sophisticated Mac users want something else. We want a PowerBook that weighs less than four pounds, has a form factor closer to the PowerBook 2400 or the PowerBook Duos, features USB and FireWire and PC Card slots, and offers connections via a 56 Kbps modem and wired and wireless Ethernet. And many people in business would like something without a gaudy color scheme. Such a PowerBook may one day appear (I’d strongly encourage it!), but it’s a far cry from today’s iBook.
So we have these two positions, as exemplified by the iBook and the hypothetical PowerBook I just described. The two positions aren’t mutually exclusive, and the connection between them is that the more experienced Macintosh users are often the ones who recommend and support the novices. We may not buy the iBook for ourselves, but we’ll buy them for our kids and extol them to our friends, just as we do with the iMac.
Who then should Macintosh industry companies target? Both segments of the market, obviously, but doing that successfully is more difficult than it may sound. The tension created by the clash of product strategies marked a number of things I noticed at the show.
Microsoft’s Moves — Watching Microsoft can be revealing, since Microsoft’s deep pockets enable it to devote more resources to research and product development than other companies. Microsoft’s announcements at the show, Word 98 Special Edition and early looks at the forthcoming Internet Explorer 5.0 and Outlook Express 5.0, reflected the fact that Microsoft learned that the three most common activities of the 1.9 million iMac users were Web browsing, word processing, and email. There wasn’t much to see with Internet Explorer 5.0 (and Web browsers are often shallow applications with little differentiation between the needs of novice and experienced users), but the $99 Word 98 Special Edition was aimed squarely at the consumer market, adding a variety of templates and clip art, plus wizards for creating different types of documents. Outlook Express 5.0 featured numerous new features and interface elements intended to address problems novices have with email.
Look more closely at Word 98 Special Edition and Outlook Express 5.0 and you’ll see the tension between the consumer and professional. With Word 98 Special Edition, Microsoft wants to make Word more attractive to consumers, but we’re talking about a powerful and sometimes obtuse word processor that’s overkill for most users, let alone novice consumers. To convince people to switch from the bundled AppleWorks, Word 98 Special Edition uses the carrot of templates and clip art for consumers, along with the stick of cross-platform file compatibility for professionals. The free Outlook Express 5.0 already owns the coveted bundling spot, making it the first and perhaps only email program many consumers will see. Thus, Microsoft’s emphasis on making the program easier to use makes perfect sense and will be welcome. But the Outlook Express team has by no means limited itself to ease-of-use, adding neat features like a message history that tracks everything you’ve done with a message. Consumers don’t need such a feature, but professionals might. This and other additions to Outlook Express 5.0 point toward a desire to satisfy both markets.
Personal Publishing — I saw a few different programs trying to meet the same need – personal publishing – but doing so with different levels of consumer and professional features. As I noted above, although Word 98 Special Edition is aimed at iMac and iBook owners, the features are grafted onto a powerful program. Moving down the spectrum, you run into Corel’s Print House 2000 and Print Office 2000, a pair of programs that simplify the process of creating documents like calendars, greeting cards, brochures, and business cards. (The difference between the two products is the types of documents they create – those useful for individuals and those generally seen in office settings.) In Corel, we see a company refocusing on the consumer space, although it is previously been best known for the high-end illustration program CorelDRAW and the word processor WordPerfect 3.5. Whether that transition will be smooth and successful remains to be seen, but the new products seem to show a renewed interest in the Macintosh. Finally, Nova Development’s Print Explosion appeared to be unabashedly aimed at the consumer market, providing an easy interface and boasting extensive help implemented using all of Apple’s help technologies: balloon help for quick explanations of interface elements, Apple Guide for tutorials, and HTML Help for reference.
MP3 Goes Mainstream — The vast interest in online music and the MP3 format (see "Move Over MTV, Now There’s MP3" in TidBITS-455) revealed yet another facet of the move toward consumers at Macworld. I saw many tiny devices for playing MP3 audio files downloaded from a Mac, including the I-Jam, the jazPiper, and the Diamond Rio 500. Not all were shipping, but the fact that multiple companies were showing these devices indicates that MP3s, once the domain of geeks with appropriate hardware and too much time to spare, are now something companies expect consumers to want. One company representative said that by this time next year he expects to see as many as 50 competing MP3 players.
Fueling much of the fire was Casady & Greene’s SoundJam, which offers the first complete solution for MP3 creation and playback. Several features show how SoundJam straddles the fence between geeks and consumers: a variety of "skins" (user interface changes along the lines of the modular interfaces available for the shareware MacAmp MP3 players) and several visual plug-ins that display mesmerizing patterns in sync with the music. Such eye candy seems superfluous to the program’s tasks of creating and playing MP3s, but I think the visual fluff will appeal to both the geek and consumer crowd simultaneously.
Get Some Color — Finally, color is here to stay, something that may concern business users or those bothered by Apple’s push to brighten up our lives. Many peripherals came in at least blueberry, if not in the full panoply of iMac colors. The largest was probably the Tektronix Phaser 840, a beefy color printer dressed in blueberry, and even Radius’s tiny iBug color calibration devices had evolved in all five iMac colors.
I worry somewhat about this adherence to Apple’s fashion lead. The previous platinum, dark grey, and brushed aluminum looks (which remain solidly entrenched in the digital camera market) clash with the blue and white Power Macintosh G3s, the iMacs, and the new iBooks, but the current crop of colored peripherals are tied too tightly to today’s colors. I don’t trust Apple not to introduce new colors, eliminate existing ones, or switch to an entirely different look. Some companies are being appropriately cautious: at least one manufacturer showed a keyboard in pure white ice so it would match any iMac, and Apple’s own AirPort Base Station sports a flavor-free look. I’d encourage peripheral manufacturers to think creatively about participating in Apple’s design revolution without being left in the dust by any significant design changes. As much as I like Apple’s design direction, the iMac and iBook designs will look quite dated in five years. Peripherals often have a longer life span than computers, so designs that can outlast the current fad would both aid longevity and mollify the business and professional users for whom color is a negative.
Final Thoughts — It’s important that the Macintosh industry welcome new users with products designed to meet their needs, but it’s equally important that the industry continue to provide experienced and professional users with powerful tools. We’re seeing the Macintosh market expand after a time of contraction and focus. With that expansion comes some confusion, but with luck, we’ll find ourselves at Macworld Expo next year with an increasingly large, healthy, and broad-based Macintosh market.